Thursday, August 4, 2016

Suwarrow: A Pit Stop on the Way to Tonga

Our days in French Polynesia were numbered.  Literally.  The government here gave us (and all non EU member passport holders) just 90 days to see their five archipelagos and countless islands. So we had to go on July 17, exactly 90 days after checking in at Hiva Oa.  

Our friends Mark and Dee aboard Speakeasy were in the same boat, so we celebrated our cruising exploits in French Polynesia with a dinner at the authentic Polynesian restaurant known as Bloody Marys.  OK, it's a tourist spot, but we didn't have to cook and we had fun with good friends.

Speakeasy left a day before we did so for our very last night we tried another restaurant on the shore just off Moonshadow's stern in Bora Bora called St. James and were blown away by the exquisite preparation, presentation, flavor, and service.  Quite memorable, and just the thing before days at sea. 

Then it was time to drop our mooring and put Bora Bora behind us...

... and add these flags to our growing bag of courtesy flags from places we've visited.

The Cook Islands comprise 15 islands spread all over the vast Pacific between French Polynesia and Tonga.  One of the northernmost islands is lonely Suwarrow, an atoll with a collection of small motus.  Suwarrow has never really been populated except for some Coast Watchers stationed here during World War II to report on enemy sightings.  Then in 1952, an Englishman named Tom Neale decided to move here to see if he could make it alone.  He ended up staying here for years and wrote a book about it called An Island to Oneself.  More recently, the Cook Islands designated the Suwarrow Atoll a National Park and station one or two Park Rangers here for six months each year.

Now days, Suwarrow gets visits from about 80 yachts per year.  Moonshadow and our friends aboard Wave Dancer were the 16th and 17th boats to stop here this year.

Remnants from the pier that Tom Neale rebuilt single handed during his time here still exist for cruisers to tie their dinghies.

When the Park Rangers arrive at the end of each cyclone season, they have a mammoth job to clean up after the ravages of the storms.  This year, the Rangers told us all the coconuts were stripped from the trees by high winds. Ashore, the fruits of their labor was much appreciated.

Suwarrow is a long way from anywhere!

This year, the Suwarrow's Park Rangers are a father/son team, Harry and Pae.  Here, Speakeasy's Mark is explaining new fashion trends to Pae, who'd never seen anyone attempt plaid on plaid.

When Tom Neale arrived here in 1952, this shack, built for the WWII Coast Watchers became his home. 

One of the first things Tom found left behind was a very eclectic collection of books.  Today the same bookcase holds the Cruisers' Book Exchange.  It didn't take long for Deb to discover this little gem:

The December 2014 issue of Latitude 38!

With friends Mark and Deanna, a short hike to the other side of the island took us past Tom's garden and through some thick island foliage where the scenes were beautiful.

Along the way, we could see the Rangers' collection of fishing gear that had drifted onto the windward shore.

But that wasn't all that made it to these shores.  We thought it a shame to come this far and see plastic littering the shore, so the girls suggested we invite the other yachts anchored in the lagoon to join us for a litter pickup party.

Vladimir and Galina of the ketch Wave Dancer
It didn't take us long for the crews of Moonshadow, Speakeasy, Wave Dancer, and Silver Linx to produce eight trash bags of stuff from the beach.  We found all sorts of interesting things, but by far the most common were empty plastic bottles, bottle caps, cigarette lighters, and flip-flops.  

The most unusual thing in our collection was this electric walking dinosaur.

Yep.  We know how to beautify a place alright!

Our new friends the Park Rangers, were grateful for the cleanup effort.
Deb and Dee were grateful for any chance to pose with Pae. 

Pae, who grew up on another very remote Cook Island about 200 miles NorthEast of Suwarrow called Manihiki, explained that when they reached the age of 8, all the male children were taken to an uninhabited motu with an elder where they learned to live off the land for a month.  These skills are now quite valuable to Harry and Pae in their current role as Suwarrow Park Rangers as they receive no support or supplies during the six months they are stationed here and they must live off the fish they catch, and the plants that grow naturally on the small island.  Pae told us these coconut crabs are edible and taste sweet like coconut.  We also learned that sometimes these crabs, equipped with pinchers that can crush a coconut, appear in bed at night.

Yeah.  No thanks!

Back aboard Moonshadow, despite the appeal of warm water so clear you could see the bottom 60 feet below, we never quite felt like taking a dip.  

Though we've swum with these Black Tip Reef Sharks before, the fact that there was always a squad of 3 or 4 circling the area just off our stern seemed a bit intimidating here.  That, and the words Pae had said kept ringing in our ears.  Pae had told us that nobody has been bit in the lagoon, then added that Black Tip Sharks are, after all, uh, sharks.  

Yeah.  No thanks!

We much preferred being ashore on Suwarrow where we could get protection from the infernal wind that was blowing 20+ day and night.  There were lots of squalls around threatening to drench us, but most of them missed a direct hit. Then there was this visit from an alien spacecraft.

So we figured it would be a good time to press on for Nuie.  
Or Niuatopotapu.  
Or Vava'u.

Actually, we cleared out of Suwarrow, with a stated destination of Nuie, a single island nation where there is no harbor or safe anchorage.  Instead, Nuie has about 20 mooring buoys for cruisers along it's western shore.  If the wind switches to the west, you must leave immediately for there is no protection from the wind or sea.  So when, on the morning of our departure, the weather forecast suddenly showed westerlies a few days hence, we diverted to Niuatopotapu, the northern-most island group in Tonga.

Niuatopotapu is so hard to pronounce that cruisers took to calling it "New Potatoes".  But we read that the islanders don't appreciate that term, so we started practicing.  It isn't that hard, you just have to pronounce every letter.  It is a mouthful though.  

On the second morning at sea, we decided to divert to Vava'u island group in Tonga, about 160 miles south of Nuiatopotapu, because the wind had veered south, began blowing hard, like 28 knots, and big seas were building.  Although we were enjoying a fine sail on a broad reach and just flying, we didn't want to set ourselves up for sailing in those conditions from Nuiatopotapu to Vava'u (that leg bears almost due south).  

Silly us.  The wind returned to the east, settled down to 12-15 knots, the big seas disappeared, and the forecast westerlies in Nuie never materialized.  By now, there was nothing to do but enjoy the sunset and an absolutely delightful sail on to Vava'u where we would see lots of friends.

Our passage took just under four days, covering 745 miles during which the first two days we sailed 418 miles in 48 hours.  We were fast enough that we had to heave to (basically stop while at sea) in the lee of Vava'u's main island, Matu'anua, to wait for the sun to rise.  When it did, it looked for a moment like we were at good ole Point Loma which guards the entrance to San Diego Bay.  

Since we will be in Tonga for the next two months before sailing beyond to New Zealand, we will have much to see, learn and write about in our next blog.  Till then, here's what we know:  Neiafu, the main town in the Vava'u group has a very well protected harbor with dozens of mooring buoys... 

...there are scores of anchorages to visit...

...and we are still a long way from anywhere!